A Black Athena in the Heart of Darkness, or Conrad's Baffling Oxymorons

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Joseph Conrad has been widely criticized for his portrait of the African woman who appears toward the end of his African novella. Most commentators consider her exclusively as the embodiment of the savagery inherent in the continent, and thence they pronounce an aggrieved or enraged condemnation of the novelist for having written such a Eurocentric and misogynistic portrait. Undoubtedly many of his feminine portraits, in particular of "native" or "mixed-race" women, are open to criticism. Our general contention, however, is that the case in point is different, and we will consequently often have to run counter to current generalizations about the character. For instance, in most accounts of the novella, the African woman has become Kurtz's mistress, although the word never appears in the text. This status, considering the conditions then prevailing and the cliches circulating at the time, may well be what Conrad had in mind. But precisely, it is significant that he should have refrained from writing the word, as if perhaps he did not want to evoke the stereotype. Thus, the African woman does not explicitly figure on the famous list of Kurtz's possessions: "My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my--," nor in Marlow's echo of it (Heart 116, 147). In a very perceptive article, Gabrielle MacIntire observes that in Heart of Darkness women have no names, being reduced to the status of men's appendages, or, as one might say, to mere possessive cases: Marlow's aunt, Kurtz's Intended, the company's two women, the accountant's laundress. (1) But MacIntire neglects to point out that the expected phrase, Kurtz's mistress, is never to be found. (2)

After having labeled the African woman as mistress, most critics then proceed to pile on her derogatory qualifiers, for which Conrad is seemingly to blame. She is "the savage woman" throughout an article by Johanna M. Smith titled "Feminine Criticism and Heart of Darkness"; and in a study of the literary image of the "femme fatale," Rebecca Stott writes that "the savage mistress [...] becomes an emblem of death" (Smith 182ff; 130-31). Abdul JanMohamed, intent on exposing the Manicheism of some writers, bluntly calls her a "dark, satanic woman" (90). (3) Even the verb used in MacIntire's evocation of the character--"She struts along the riverbank"--has slightly disparaging overtones and does not seem to correspond to Conrad's intentions, since "strut implies a pompous or theatrical affectation of dignity" (emphasis added; MacIntire 260; Webster's 797). So the task ahead of us is a delicate one. No doubt prejudiced about the preconceptions we think we detect in a majority of interpretations, we would like to offer a reading of veiled connotations--not all of them perhaps intentional--which to our knowledge have not been fully exploited. And since the paragraphs devoted to the character do not present a static portrait but a kind of compressed drama, we will in the main follow the successive stages of its unfolding (Heart 135-36).

As has often been noticed, a first cluster of connotations centers around the evocation of a war goddess, both on account of some of the character's equipment ("brass leggings," "brass wire gauntlet," and "helmet") and of her whole attitude ("proudly," "she carried her head high") (Heart 135). (4) If we add the somewhat dignified "draped," it is difficult not to think of a goddess from Greek mythology, and the name of Athena immediately comes to mind (Heart 135). Yet, contrary to Athena, the African woman carries no weapon, which may give a first hint as to Conrad's intention not to foreground the aggressive properties of the character. She is no Kali, no Durga, who sow death and destruction in their paths. This is why the African woman, walking "with measured steps," is nearer to Athena than to swift-footed Artemis, whose career is notoriously strewn with corpses (Heart 135). (5) Now our reading hypothesis also rests on the composite personality of Athena, which was made up of surprisingly contradictory features. …